Anger is all the rage right now. The rate of anger “reactions” on political Facebook posts is rising rapidly. Among women, TV shows like “Dietland,” “Jessica Jones” and “Sharp Objects” — as well as real-world #MeToo headlines — demand comeuppance for decades of injustice, as long-simmering furies boil over. But these powerful feelings are still poorly understood. Here are five of the most intransigent myths.
Media and literature frequently reflect, and perpetuate, the belief that boys and men are “naturally” angrier than girls and women — and that their anger is righteous and violent. A 2016 study titled “What’s In a Face?” by University of Massachusetts researchers found that most people are predisposed to associate negative and angry facial expressions with men and masculinity. Biases that lead most of us to “see” anger in men’s faces also lead us to commonly interpret women’s faces as fearful or sad. Think of the movie genre of male-led vengeance fantasies, from “A Time to Kill” to “Oldboy” to “Inglorious Basterds”; Liam Neeson feeds his family on this trope, because furious revenge is a dish best served male. Google “angry people” and witness that more than 80 percent of the images are of men, mostly white men.
But research consistently shows that men are no more likely than women to be angry. In fact, women report feeling anger more frequently and in more sustained ways. In early 2016, for example, a national survey conducted by Esquire and NBC found that women reported consistently higher rates of anger. Another, conducted by Elle magazine two years later, revealed the same pattern.
The myth of gendered anger begins with children as young as 3 or 4. A 2011 meta-analysis of research on children’s emotional expression found that adult biases strongly influence how we think about gender and anger: Adults are more likely to describe infants they think are boys as agitated and disagreeable. Other studies show that both mothers and fathers are more likely, when reading to their children, to associate anger with male characters and use words making those connections.
Physical aggression and hostility are often thought of as release mechanisms for anger. Some people throw plates, others punch holes in walls. “Come In. Break Sh*t. Leave Happy” reads the landing page of the Anger Room in Dallas, a place that gives customers a baseball bat and a room full of junk, promising, “No Judgement & No Consequences.” At Columbia University, students have a semi-annual tradition, at midnight on a Sunday during the final-exam period, of shouting away their stress in a school-wide “primal scream .” People sign up for combat sports like kickboxing and practice “medicine ball slams” to release rage and reduce stress.
The problem is that “destruction therapy,” as it has been called, doesn’t help and could actually upset you more, according to research. One study concluded that it “may be worse than useless.” Trying to get anger “out” in these ways has been shown to lead to increases in aggressive behavior and ruminating, an unhelpful process in which anger can loop in on itself, causing further aggravation and obsessive thoughts. Even verbally letting off steam, by complaining in dribs and drabs or dashing off some online snark, doesn’t bring catharsis. Research shows that the more a person “vents” in these ways, the more they report having had a bad day. Psychologist Brad J. Bushman, for example, concluded that venting increases anger and aggression. After studying the emotional responses of people using punching bags to exorcise their rage, he concluded that “doing nothing at all was more effective.”
Breathe deeply. Count to 10. Go for a walk. Those tricks might have helped Adam Sandler’s protagonist in “Anger Management,” a man desperate to stifle his volcanic outbursts. The Mayo Clinic likewise offers “10 tips to tame your anger” that include exercising, taking a timeout and using humor.
But the “self-silencing” of anger has been studied for decades, and it is clearly implicated in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and suicide. An inability to express anger also affects relationships, inhibiting, for example, intimacy. The best kind of “management” is the kind that channels feelings, rather than bottling them up. Among the best approaches, according to psychologists and researchers, is to write about what is making you angry and engage in constructive conversations with people who can address your concerns and help solve problems. Such methods are directly tied to better health outcomes. A 2008 study of the relationship between anger and chronic pain found that patients who expressed their anger constructively experienced “greater improvement in control over pain and depressed mood.” Studies suggest a strong association between improved emotional regulation and lower cardiovascular and cancer mortality rates.
This is a trope. “Congratulations to Maxine Waters, whose crazy rants have made her, together with Nancy Pelosi, the unhinged FACE of the Democrat Party,” President Trump tweeted in July. In schools, a 2017 report by the National Women’s Law Center found, black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white female peers. A racist Australian newspaper cartoon depicted Serena Williams’s quarrel with a U.S. Open umpire, which helped cause her defeat in the final last weekend, as a tantrum.
But a 2009 study found that black women exhibited no more or less anger than a control group. And in that Esquire/NBC survey, 56 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics reported getting angry at least once a day, compared with 73 percent of whites. Fifty-eight percent of white women said they’d experienced increasing anger over the course of the previous year; only 44 percent of nonwhite women said the same. “There is no meaningful difference between black and white women in reports of elevated anger,” concluded the most recent study, conducted by Elle magazine this year.
Microaggressions against black women do appear to raise stress and anger, but, largely because of experience in navigating that form of discrimination, black women are more likely to suppress displays of anger to avoid being penalized for seeming emotional and irrational.
In July, in her popular Netflix special, “Nanette,” comedian Hannah Gadsby concluded that anger, which had powered her for years, was a purely counterproductive emotion whose only purpose is “to spread blind hatred.” How many fictional characters throw plates — as does Alicia, the heroine and victim of a cheating spouse in “The Good Wife”? It seems intuitive that having negative feelings is harmful.
But having the feelings isn’t the problem; it’s what we do about them. The American Psychological Association points out that “anger is a completely normal, usually healthy, human emotion” that “turns destructive” when it’s not acknowledged, not understood. Anger can be channeled productively and creatively, often with powerful and lasting effects. For instance, after the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, singer Nina Simone was overcome with shock and rage. “I had it in mind to go out and kill someone,” she explained. Her husband, instead, urged her to “Do what you do.” The result was “Mississippi Goddamn,” one of the most moving and influential protest songs of the 20th century. Today, anger at social injustice is fueling massive social movements in the United States and abroad, such as global women’s marches in 2017 and 2018.